First published: Fall 2001
I found Mahmoud al-Labban’s studio very easily. It is located in the Ghouriyya district of old Cairo, where there are no street-signs but everyone is eager to show you which way to go. Against my expectation, he received me without warmth, and remained aloof and indifferent. I was determined not to give in, and so we sat and talked for three hours. We went round and round in circles. For him, I represented nothing more than one of those so-called intellectuals who casually drop in and leave again. ‘What is it you expect from us?’ I asked him. He avoided giving any direct answer, and carried on talking, not because he really wanted to but because, as long as I remained a guest, this was all that was to be done. He spoke about himself as though he were someone who had ceased to exist. ‘But you are alive and still working,’ I retorted, trying to revive his spirits and to bring out the best in him. ‘You mustn’t call this work!’, he flared up angrily. His rage was perhaps a way of defending his art, a protest against its being labelled ‘work’, the equivalent of paid labour. For him, labour was associated with money, which he spurned, despite his awareness of its value. This reference to money then triggered off his life-story.
At one time, he confided, he was a wealthy person and ran his own business. He had left school at the age of twelve to take a job as a milkman (labban in Arabic means one who delivers milk). Having accumulated enough savings, he started his own dairy business. It went well, and yet there was an indefinable impulse within him which kindled a fire, a passion for something more.
He enlisted in the Dervish sect and participated in their Sufi ‘nodding’ sessions. He sought to express the unattainable by fashioning solid incense-burners out of plaster. With a chisel he began to cut strange patterns on the sides of these quasi-architectural forms. The incisions had no special significance, yet they had to be there. ‘They were there, as part of everything else’. All his daily activities were interrelated: his religious devotions and his creative work were no different in quality from cooking up cheese, fermenting yoghurt or carrying out the functions of a parent. Everything about his existence was both beautiful and functional.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #36